How the foods you love are engineered to be irresistible
A secret meeting of food company CEOs in 1999 marks the opening of “Salt, Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” a new book that digs into the world of processed foods.
The execs were meeting to talk about obesity, a crisis that was then only beginning to become apparent. A key vice-president from Kraft explained that they all shared responsibility for the crisis and pleaded with them to do something to turn it around.
When he finished speaking, the CEO of General Mills stood up. Clearly annoyed, he pointed out that he had a duty to his company’s shareholders to maintain sales and there was no way his company could cut the salt, sugar, and fat in its food products. By the time he sat down, the meeting was essentially over.
The scene perfectly encapsulates the hold that salty, sugary and fatty foods have not only on consumers, but on food companies themselves.
Since its release weeks ago, “Salt, Sugar, Fat,” has seen a wave of publicity and acclaim. Its author, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Michael Moss, is not the first to note how unhealthy processed foods are. Nor is he the first to show how addictive salty, sweet and fatty foods can be. (Former U.S. FDA chief David Kessler did a fine job of that in his book, "The End of Overeating," explaining that evolution has trained us to seek out salt, fat and sugar.)
But what Moss has been able to do is to look at how food companies are purposely engineering their products to make them as irresistible as possible, paying only lip service the ever-growing obesity epidemic.
The book was three years in the making and involved interviews with dozens of current and former food industry scientists, marketing gurus, package designers, and lobbyists. The end result reads like a murder mystery, in part because Moss was able to gain access to so many secret food industry files.
“The reporting and research, I have to say, was like being in a detective story,” Moss told CTV’s Canada AM Wednesday.
“I was lucky enough to come across thousands of pages of internal documents at the largest food companies that really showed me what they were doing and how salt, sugar fat became the three pillars within the holy grail, and how their whole survival depends on those three ingredients.”
Food scientists, Moss discovered, work to create an ideal “mouth feel” to their foods, striving to reach a food’s “bliss point.” That’s the point when a food’s salt, sugar and fat levels make it essentially irresistible, so that consumers can’t stop eating or drinking them. And when they are done, they want more.
Moss spoke with renowned market researcher Howard Moscowitz, who walked him through his creation of a new flavour for Dr. Pepper and how he used dozens of formulas that were slightly varied in sweetness, to reach the perfect level of sweetness that would put consumers over the moon.
He also looked at Lunchables, the lunch product that combines tiny little hot dogs, pizzas and bologna sandwiches into convenient packs that fit nicely into kids’ lunch bags. Lunchables are an example of brilliant marketing, Moss says. Not only did their marketers find a way to bring kids’ favourite fast food meals into the grocery store, they topped it off with a perfect slogan.
“They discovered that kids loved the idea of Lunchables because they assembled them themselves and it would give them status in the lunchroom. So they came up with the slogan, ‘All day, you have to do what they say, but lunch time is all yours.’ It was brilliant marketing. Brilliant,” he says.
As Moss’ book describes how food companiesuse marketing to hook kids early and keep adults shoppers spending, while downplaying health concerns, the parallels with the well-known marketing techniques of tobacco companies becomes obvious. Moss says that’s likely no coincidence.
“One of the more fascinating things I discovered is that the Phillip Morris company owned and became the largest food manufacturer through buying Kraft and General Foods in the late ‘80s. And in the ‘90s, they convinced their marketing departments to do everything to market their foods better and harder,” he says.
"Salt Sugar Fat" unearths campaigns adapted from tobacco companies meant to convince consumers that the companies are concerned with health. But even when they would make chages by cutting the fat in a product for example, they inevitably would boost the salt or sugar to keep their foods appealing.
One example is yogourt, a food that carries a “halo” of healthiness. Consumers demanded low-fat versions, so food makers obliged, Moss says. But the comapnies also dialled up the sugar, turning what was once a healthy food into a form of semi-liquid candy.
“When you look at the Nutrition Facts box, yogourt can have as much sugar as ice cream. So consumers are eating dessert but thinking it’s healthy,” he notes.
The problem now, Moss says, is that food makers simply can’t cut the salt, sugar or fat out o their products and remain competitive. Salt, sugar and fat help food makers avoid using more costly ingredients, such as fresh herbs or unprocessed meat. They allow their products to sit on shelves for weeks at a time because they act as preservatives. And most importantly, they keep consumers coming back for more.
But food companies are beginning to realize that obesity is going to become as much -- if not more -- of a problem for them as nicotine was for tobacco companies, Moss says. Consumers are ramping up the pressure for change and he suspects that 1999 meeting would likely turn out quite differently today.
“I think we’re at a real tipping point. I’m hopeful that these companies, finally, could have a meeting like this again and could really address in a meaningful way their dependence,” he says.
“Because that’s the amazing thing: they are as hooked on salt, sugar and fat as we are. They’re between a rock and a hard place. But they’re going to have to do something."